Parents' Local Districts Must Cover Special Ed. Costs for Inmates

By William Peacock, Esq. on December 18, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When a student is in need of special education services, typically, it is the parents' local school district that covers the cost of the free appropriate public education (FAPE) that is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Per the California Education Code, the burden shifts to juvenile hall if the student is incarcerated, however. And when that student reaches the age of eighteen, he is transferred to the county jail. But, per the Education Code, Section 56040 et seq., the FAPE requirement continues until the age of 21, so long as the student was identified as an individual with "exceptional needs" prior to incarceration in an adult facility.

The problem is, unlike on the outside, or in juvenile hall, the lawmakers forgot to mention who is responsible for the cost of educating these adult FAPE recipients.

A Felon With Needs

Michael Garcia was diagnosed as having learning deficiencies in the second grade. When he was arrested on felony charges at the age of 15, he was provided special education services by the fine folks of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, pursuant to the aforementioned juvenile hall statutory exception.

Graduated to Jail, Became a Crusader

At the age of eighteen, he was transferred to the Los Angeles County Jail. They do not provide special education services, so Garcia filed a due process complaint with the Special Education Division of the Office of Administrative Hearings on behalf of himself and other similarly situated inmates.

Appeals, And More Appeals

That office, pursuant to Section 56041, found that the default rule -- the parents' district -- applied, and after much litigation, assigned the duty to the Los Angeles Unified School District. LAUSD provided services to Garcia, but filed a motion for relief in federal district court. Alas, the court agreed with the OAH. A Ninth Circuit appeal followed, which led to a certified question to the California Supreme Court: does Section 56041 apply to those incarcerated in county jails?

Cal. Supreme Court: No Exception Applies

What happens when lawmakers remember to mandate special education services for those between the ages of 18 and 22, yet forget to assign the cost?

According to the state Supreme Court, the default rule applies:

"Absent any indications of a contrary legislative intent in the language and structure of the special education statutory scheme as a whole, we conclude that when none of the statutory exceptions to section 56041 applies, the entity responsible for providing special education to an eligible young adult pupil while he or she is incarcerated in county jail is properly determined by the terms of section 56041."

In other words: the parents' district pays.

Pragmatic Result?

The court rejected LAUSD's argument that the result was unworkable, as it would require them to coordinate staff and services to educate students in geographically distant jails. The court noted that these concerns were "valid, palpable concerns," but also noted that the district could contract with other districts or agencies to provide the services.

The alternative, quickly dismissed by the court as unfeasible, would be to saddle the jails nearest district with the tab, overwhelming that district's resources with the cost of other districts' special education students-turned-inmates.

And don't even think about LACOE covering the bill -- the district that covers juvenile hall students and operates community day schools for students on probation, expelled students, and others, suffered its own bloodletting in 2010, with 22 of the district's 53 schools closed. Plus, without a statutory mandate, they have no duty to educate adult inmates.


Garcia's alma mater, the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, also known as "Sylmar," survived the LACOE closures and has a mostly positive Yelp! rating.

However, according to the court's opinion, Garcia took a plea deal and is serving 12 years in a state prison facility, where the education requirement does not apply.

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